When You Realize The Irony of Jesus as a Carpenter

I had a friend in my small-group at North Park first semester who has been blogging for a couple of years. She has amassed well over 500 blog posts in that short time. We are friends on Facebook and it seems that every time I scroll down my newsfeed I am assaulted (okay, that may be a grievous misuse of the word) by her contemplative, imaginative, beautifully ordinary writing. To this end, I am a horrible blogger. I fail massively at keeping my readers (another possible grievous misuse of the word) updated on my comings-and-goings. I complained about this to my friend Ethan over the summer and he sensibly told me to commit to writing once a week, even if it were just stream-of-consciousness mayhem that I refuse to post publicly on the internet. I told him I don’t have enough thoughts for that.

Contrarily, I might have too many thoughts for that. I suppose, as anybody who keeps a blog or even a personal journal might know, that the longer one goes without writing things down the harder it becomes to formulate any sort of coherent, well-executed thought. The last time I blogged was months ago. It would be quite near insane to attempt to compress so much time into a post a person might actually be interested in reading. Thus, the next few paragraphs are but a sparse, glimpsed narrative of what the inside of my head looks like these days. In between the moments I choose to include are thousands of other moments, each just as beautifully and blandly ordinary as the next; each, as Anne Lamott puts it, a lily pad that summoned and prepared me for the next lily pad to which I would leap. The stories untold are no less important than the ones told, but this post offers the essentials in which to convey what God has been sanding and sawing and hammering away at in me for the past couple of months. I use those verbs quite purposefully, in fact. It is ironic that Jesus’ day job was carpentry. God is one hell of an artist, I’m sure, but She isn’t always the most gentle.

***

When I was younger, I was the kind of child who would invite friends over to play and then lock myself in the bathroom to lay on the cool tiled floor and read. Seriously. Ask any of my oldest friends and they will testify that I often forwent their friendship in lieu of a good chapter book. That love of reading, of knowledge, of exploration of the billions of minds before me, followed me into high school and college. In high school, I read Richard Dawkins’ “The God Delusion” and immediately had a crisis of faith. I traipsed into the youth group room at church the following Tuesday and told my pastor, Jen, that we were going to discuss each question on all seven pages of notes I had taken on the book. (I don’t recall if we ever actually did. But her support was immense.) This past semester at school, I vividly recall becoming so worked up over a topic of research I was covering for a class that I called Jen near midnight to shout at her all the things my brain was currently trying to process. I think that time she laughed at me and proceeded to tweet the situation.

My team here in Thailand has often told me that they love my inability to take anything at face-value, love that I have a need to play devil’s advocate towards myself, to research everything. To be fair, it does seem as though my levels of literary exploration have skyrocketed since being abroad. What once was an enjoyable hobby has become something rabid, fierce, necessary. What started as self-research to know what I call “my deep fundamentals” has spiraled into devouring every piece of literature on every controversial topic I can get my hands on. I’ve been thinking about God and talking about God but the more I do, the more wasted actual conversation WITH God seems. I’ve surrounded myself with lowercase god but God, at times, feels so far away.

***

There was a girl named Shekinah in my youth group in high school. She was intelligent. Beyond intelligent. She knew the Bible forwards and backwards; she quoted C.S. Lewis as often as she wore a baseball cap on her curly-haired head, which was always. I constantly coveted her vast knowledge of Scripture and it’s exegesis. But I remember her saying to me once as everyone was filing out of the room, “I know so much about God that now it’s like I don’t know God at all.”

***

Jo is a woman at our ministry who escaped the bars years ago. I am in love with Jo. Jo, in all her giggly, pointed strangeness, is one of my favorites. You are allowed to have favorites, I think, when you live with people for three months. She speaks limited English, but what she lacks in vocabulary she makes up for in squinty-eyed grins. I try to always make sure I go with her when we head to the bar streets for outreach. The first time I went with her, a couple weeks ago, we were in a taxi crawling through the littered highways of Bangkok when she turned to me and screeched, “Who’s going to win today?”

“What do you mean, Jo?” I responded.

“YOU! You are going to win today.” She replied, ignoring my question.

I just stared at her.

This is beautiful. This is beautiful because Jo doesn’t actually mean that I will be the one to win when we go into those dark, dirty, sacred bar streets. Jo means that God through me is going to win. But for her, that goes as unspoken, obvious, accounted for. Obviously I, with my discernment and insurmountable knowledge and self-aggrandizement, am absolutely incapable of anything without God.

***

I wonder how often I am more focused on what it means to live in light of the Gospel than I am with the Gospel itself. After all, the Gospels are ordered first in the New Testament, where the spotlight is on God Incarnate, the Risen Messiah. Only afterwards, secondary to the Gospels, come the Epistles in which all that puzzling out, curiosity, and debate take place. Slowly, slowly, God is convicting me: I have been clinging to theology, all the while skeptically inspecting Christ’s outstretched hand.

I want the Church to change. I want the world to change. But God, in Her ever grace-filled, transformative way, is showing me that this change must first and foremost take place in me.

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Feels Like I’ve Written Something Like This Before

Tomorrow morning I leave to work another summer as a camp counselor in Lake Geneva, Wisconsin. It seems crazy to me that it’s already June 4th. I swear I just left last summer’s camp session a few minutes ago…

I’ve been thinking a lot about how I want to do my job this summer: how I did it last summer, what I want to do the same, what I’d like to change. To be honest, I don’t have a lot of eloquent words about what’s been going on in my head. It’s all kind of a jumbled ball of string up there. I start thinking about one thing and before I know what’s happening my thoughts are in a completely different place.

But God keeps bringing me back to one phrase: to know.

As in, am I doing the best that I can to actually know people?

Here’s what I think.

Too often, we’re looking for the wrong thing. We look for spirituality instead of humanity. We look at someone’s life– their failed relationship, their eating disorder, their broken family, their questions, their doubts, their fears– and we ask, “Have you read your Bible lately?” We think that helping someone figure out their spiritual life is the complete solution to all their problems. In reality, it’s a grand gesture in missing the point. We need to KNOW people. We need to know how they felt when their mom left the family and why they hate math class and what makes them passionate and how they feel about Groundhog Day and what songs make them cry and it is THERE, in the normalcy and the humanity, that we will find God.

Because God is in the humanity. He is in the tension. He always has been. There is nothing more sacred than a God who shows up, chases us down, and makes us new in the midst of our mess. When we find divinity, we will find it because of humanity, not in spite of it.

This summer, I want to know people. I don’t want to miss the point.

A Brave Faith

You make me brave.
You make me brave.
You called me out beyond the shore into the waves.

In two weeks, I will have finished my freshman year of college and packed up the life I’ve created at North Park in preparation to be apart from it for eight months. In four weeks, I will say goodbye to one of my very best friends as she moves seven hours away. In five weeks, I will be back at Covenant Harbor as a counselor, the familiar (but definitely not comfortable) summer camp at which I worked last year. And in just four short months, I will be packing up once again to spend three months in Thailand, working with women trapped in the sex-trafficking industry of the red light district.

The next eight months look a little daunting. I’m stoked. I love adventure and curiosity and newness. But I’d be lying if I said I was 100% prepared for it all. I’m teetering on the edge of what I’m comfortable with and what I know God is calling me to. I’m in a place of change and that’s unsettling. However, in the midst of these new beginnings and undiscovered territory, I am reminded of the truth God has made more clear to me this year than anything else: All I am required to take is one step towards faith.

One step towards a faith that discovers;
that asks more questions than has answers;
that dares to speak up;
that dares to listen– really intimately listen;
that obeys amidst doubts and fears;
that risks;
that explores;
that acknowledges when it’s wrong;
that is wild;
that starts all over, all of the time;
that dances and loves and sings really off-key.

With everything that I am, I want to move towards God, knowing that He has never stopped moving towards me. Every day, for the next eight months, I will try to take a step towards a faith that is small but brave, a faith that is broken enough to need and surrender to a God bigger than it ever could be.

What Is to Stop Us?

The conversation over World Vision’s decision to allow homosexuals to be employees of the massive Christian nonprofit organization has been quite the hot topic for the past couple of days. I use the term “hot topic” loosely, because maybe I’m just really entrenched in the Covenant Christian community, where things like this get talked about over ARA dinner and while walking to class. Maybe you haven’t heard. If you haven’t, here’s what happened:

Though World Vision hasn’t taken a side in the ongoing battle of homosexuality, the organization has stated that they are now permitting the employment of gay Christians. Richard Stearns, president of World Vision, stated, “Changing the employee conduct policy to allow someone in a same-sex marriage who is a professed believer in Jesus Christ to work for us makes our policy more consistent with our practice on other divisive issues.”

In short, I see this as a major win. I think it’s absolutely beautiful that in my lifetime I am seeing such insane changes in the way homosexuals are treated in the Church.

But across social media, evangelicals are pissed. They are threatening to relinquish their support for World Vision’s child sponsorships around the globe. They are equating the leaders and staff members of World Vision to unbelievers, fake Christians. They are plastering scripture across forums and using big words and throwing their holy hands up in the air, lamenting over the lost Gospel.

I’m reading all these comments on blogs and Facebook posts and tweets, and I keep asking myself: When did it become our job to determine who is allowed to be in the Kingdom of God?

I love the story of Phillip and the Ethiopian Eunuch. I actually love the entire book of Acts, and I think we have a hell of a lot to learn from the early church. But I especially love good ol’ Phil and the eunuch. I remember when I first read this story, I had not idea what the word “eunuch” meant. When I googled it, it was defined as a male who was castrated, and further investigation found that these men were often expelled from the assembly of God in accordance with Deuteronomy 23:1.

Regardless of that, this eunuch is on his way back in a chariot from worshipping in Jerusalem. Phillip, who is just hanging out in Jerusalem, is instructed by an angel of the Lord to go down the road and when he sees the chariot, to go to it and join the eunuch. I’m betting that Phillip sees this eunuch and is like, “Aha! Here’s a eunuch that I can convert! I’ll make him see the light!” But when Phillip gets there, the eunuch is already reading out of the prophet Isaiah. Phillip asks him if he understands it, and the eunuch invites him to explain it to him. A bit later, when the chariot comes upon a body of water, the eunuch asks Phillip, “What is to stop me from being baptized?” and Phillip ends up baptizing him.

Read that again. Phillip ends up baptizing him.

Phillip, who, I bet, thought that it was his job to convert and change this eunuch into something that fits with the church doctrine of the time, can not find a good enough reason to stop the eunuch from being baptized. Nothing. In the end, it is Phillip who is converted instead of the eunuch. The eunuch already knew that he was good enough. He simply invites Phillip to know that as well.

I think that this is something we need to learn, over and over again, as followers of Christ. The Kingdom of God is not the Kingdom of Taylor. It is not the Kingdom of Richard Stearn. It is not the Kingdom of Franklin Graham or John Piper. It is not the Kingdom of You, either. It is the Kingdom of God. We must enter into that Kingdom with the knowledge and trust that God knows hearts better than we ever could. That He is a better judgement of character than we ever could be. And I believe that this Kingdom is, without a doubt, going to be full of faces we’d never expect. Gays, straights, pro-lifers, pro-choicers, fundamentalists, egalitarians, complementarians, liberals, conservatives. What is to stop us from baptizing these people, and being baptized in return? We need these people. These people who challenge what we think we know to be certain; they remind us that they, too, are good enough. 

Let us always remember that we are all sinners, washed clean by the blood of Christ. Let us always remember that this blood flows deeper and wider than we could ever imagine. Amen.

The Product of Jamie Making Me Watch a Ted Talk

To love is no recoupable investment, no redeemable promise. It is to open yourself up to a possible cataclysm of entanglement and brokenness and failure. It is gulping down fear in order to walk straight past the safe and steeled into the shaky and immeasurable. It is fumbling around in the dark, at times faking sight. It is cutting open scars that were once scoured smooth, praying someone can help with the sutures or at least sit with you, hand on knee, while you bleed. It is attempting to satisfy some piercing and primal desire to know while you’re trying so desperately to stay unknown. It is wild and insane. To love is to dive, arms stretched like branches, sweaty hands wide open, vulnerability flapping like a cape behind you, into the pit of absolute uncertainty. To love is a shit show.

But more, it is to come boldly, declaring that the bleakness and confusion of your own humanity is not fierce enough to stop you from hunting down the one thing that keeps you going, the connection you’ve had since you were dust, the need that swells so large in your chest it feels like it could swallow the whole sky. To love is to pursue jealously, with the knowledge that you -yes, you- were made for this.

Though We’ve Never Met

6:30 A.M. Anna and I are the only ones in the prayer room. I shuffle over to the overstuffed chair in the corner. Anna turns off the harsh fluorescent lights and turns on an overhead Chinese lantern. The soft glow makes the room seem inviting, warm. Though I’ve been away from this place for over a month, I’m comforted in the fact that it still feels like the presence of God is lingering in the air above my head, like He hovered above still, dark waters before the world even began.

Anna and I chat for a while. Wait for people to show up. Courtney probably slept in. Becca’s alarm probably didn’t go off. And it’d be a rare occasion for Kinzie or Dan to appear.
I fidget a bit in my chair. I find a book tucked inside the bookshelf to my right, nestled between an NIV study bible and a book of Psalms. When I open it, I am surprised to find handwritten prayers instead of neatly typed words. I flip through the pages slowly. Prayers from 2006. Prayers from 2008. Prayers from three weeks ago. In the handwriting of hundreds of different authors.
I do not recognize their names. I do recognize their prayers.
I have prayed the same things dozens of times. Shouts of absolute joy to the God who has given me abundant, beautiful life. Guttural cries for rescue in times of absolute heartache and confusion. Desperate pleas for His presence when I don’t know where He is or even where I am. I have used the same words, experienced the same feelings. My heart is cracked open, bleeding this person’s prayer because it was once my prayer. Maybe it still is.
I look up at Anna.
“How is it possible for us to feel so alone?”
You are not alone. You never have been. There are other people doubting, hurting, shouting, singing, praising. There are other people who are desperate, confused, overjoyed, scared, angry, delighted. There are other people praying for something, anything, trying to fight God and find Him at the same time.
Sometimes I think that it is our prayers, spit into the air when we can’t bear to hold them in any longer, that hold up those who feel the same thing but don’t have the strength or the words to say it themselves. 

The Post That Needed A Disclaimer

*DISCLAIMER: This post is not meant to offend any attenders of Hillcrest Covenant! That place is my home, you people are my home. Also, I know we have pink carpet because we are glamorous and fabulous. Hair flip.*

I get a little anxious about taking my friends to my church.

I like the idea. I really love the idea, actually. I desperately desire for my friends to encounter Jesus, and to be used somehow by God in that process would be incredible. Though my time spent at home these days is brief, I often imagine myself picking up a pal or two on my way to church on Sunday before swiftly pulling into the parking lot down my street. I would introduce them to my pastors (who would supply witty jokes right on cue, to my delight), and we’d sing along passionately to a lively Chris Tomlin tune being plucked on the guitar by a paid, professional worship leader. One of my pastors would open up the floor for a time of communal prayer, and the congregation would chime in with proficient, poetic invocations. We would then enjoy a delicately crafted sermon that delivers to my friends a clean, easy, tender Jesus, full of invitation but free of conviction, and an hour and a half later, I would drop my friends off at their homes, having had a wonderful conversation in the car about how great God is.

That’s what I imagine.

That is not what would occur.

 

Yes, there would be a time of communal prayer.

Sure, we’d probably hum some Chris Tomlin.

Absolutely, the sermon would be delicately crafted and thoughtfully prepared.

And without a doubt, Jesus would be delivered.

But perhaps the communal prayer is filled with some uncomfortable silence, and when some brave person utters the words on his or her heart, those words are chatty or dull or confusing or hard to hear. Maybe when we sing Chris Tomlin songs, it is not in accompaniment to the harmonic voices of a couple of paid professionals, but by two vocalists and a handful of band members from our congregation (possibly someone you sat next to last week). It’s possible that the wrong verse would pop up on the screen and everyone would “mumble mumble mumble to the Lord on high!” in confusion until the correct slide is found. And when either Pastor Steve or Pastor Jen speaks, I can guarantee you that their sermon is insightful, well-researched, and prayed over. But, for some maddening reason, they refuse to sugar-coat Jesus. If Jesus needs to be messy and hard that Sunday, that’s how they will give him. Jesus is delivered as-is, which sometimes might happen to look like the droopy piece of cake with a smushed frosting-flower. You know it will taste just as delicious but even so, really? You give me that piece? Excuse me, Jen, but I’d like something prettier, please.

My church is messy. The people are a little bit tangled, a little bit cobwebby. We sing too loud, too off-key. Our decorations are hand-made. Our pews are hard. Our carpet is pink, damn it. My church is not aesthetically pleasing.

But my church is beautiful.

Similarly, my God, a lot of the time, is not aesthetically pleasing. I would like Jesus to be easier. I would like for him not to cause me to question myself, or dig deep, or change. Sometimes I think it’d be a lot better for me if my Jesus could be an uncomplicated, undemanding, unchallenging, and painless Jesus.

Lately, my more seldom-seen retrospective and thoughtful side has been tenderly pointing my finger back to myself. Is my life uncomplicated? Undemanding? Unchallenging or painless? Do I really want a God like that? Would a God like that even be willing to enter into my life, help me dig through my crap and sort it with me, his hand in mine? Especially through this past season of advent, I‘ve been reminded of a God who was literally born into a messy life in order to take on my mess. My God is unapologetically and genuinely complex. It makes sense to me that His Church is also.

A lot of people think God is in the clean, quiet, sanctified places. I’m sure that’s true. But I see God most clearly in the mess. There’s something about believing that God is willing to enter into the loud singing, the miss-matched decorations, the cobwebby places.

They aren’t unlike our own hearts.